After outlining my semi-outrageous requirements for the ideal preamplifier, I’ve promptly ignored many of them and ended with a truly obscure choice
I can’t even recall how I found this specific supplier’s website. I have a feeling that I had been sniffing around the Music First Audio site and thinking that a transformer based passive preamp had to be a good idea. Simple, elegant and with a plethora of glowing reviews following them around, the MFA units looked like the bomb. They’re able to fit into more systems than a standard pot based passive because impedance matching is much less of an issue thanks to the transformers. Theoretically you get all the goodies you’d normally get from a passive (transparency and detail) with the drive and weight of an active.
The problem was that the MFA prices made my wallet and my credit cards a little queasy, so I searched for other transformer passive options, or Transformer Volume Controls (TVCs) as they’re commonly known. There’s the Promitheus from Malaysia, which has a huge following on certain forums, the Django, the Bent Audio (not strictly a TVC but close enough) among others.
Somehow I stumbled upon the StereoKnight site and thought “hang on, this looks like a bit of me, wonder what they cost?” I couldn’t help but notice that there was even a remote controlled version, which would be just right for a lazy bugger like me.
Emails between me and owner James Zhang in Tennessee ensued and I decided to bring in one of his Silverstone Balance models. No remote unfortunately but I really liked the looks and the sheer simplicity of the design. Putting power into a passive pre to drive remote volume and switching seemed silly.
With no local agent, I had to go direct but at US$1,000 shipped, it seemed like it was worth a shot. James offers a 30 day satisfaction guarantee, so what the heck, money changed hands and I settled in to watch the DHL tracking system as the unit moved from Hong Kong (designed in the USA, made in the Far East) to Auckland.
Buyers remorse swiftly kicked in. Let’s see – I’d just bought an unknown brand with no headphone stage, no phono stage, no local support and no remote without hearing or seeing the unit and no idea if it would work with my eccentric power amps. Did I mention that there was NO REMOTE! Argh what had I done?
Five days later it had arrived but the DHL/Courier Post guy didn’t bother coming down the drive (I know because I was home all bleeding day waiting for him after I’d called up to ascertain the delivery date). He just dropped a note in the post box, so I went to collect it the next day (after the local Courier Post depot lost it overnight). The box looked OK eternally, so I signed for it and shot home.
Result? No not really. There was evidence of movement inside the box and there was obvious damage to one of the volume knobs. The StereoKnight factory had scrimped on the packaging, using some relatively soft foam and the amp had slid around while in transit. It was also covered in fingerprints, so may well have been opened up en route. Welcome to the wonderful world of personal imports.
Long story short – the right attenuator was munted, making a lovely grinding noise instead of the click, click, click of the left attenuator. James was very good to deal with and we arranged for the unit to go back to a certain Mr. Fang in Guangdong Province, China. I packed it to resist even the worst efforts of courier, customs and assorted agencies of mischief. It got there in a few days, was quickly repaired and arrived back with me in around three more days.
This time, it was in great nick, with uprated packaging using heavy duty foam inserts. I nervously hooked it up and tentatively hit play.
When I first got the broken unit, I’d played it using the one working channel and what I heard was so good it had just about rewired my brain. This revived unit was much the same.
First, as expected from a passive preamp, it’s as quiet as a ninja church mouse wearing slippers and walking on feathers. I kid you not, the noise floor is in the sub-basement.
As far as transparency, openness and levels of detail go, this thing is in another league even compared to the excellent active Densen B-200 that I reviewed recently. It sounds like nothing at all, which is a very good thing for a preamplifier. I feel like I’m finally actually hearing all of the source, power amps and speakers. Every single instrument and all the vocals are wildly texturally detailed, more so than I’ve ever heard at home and I’ve had a bunch of good amps hooked up to this CD player and these speakers over the years. Yeah yeah, cue up the “veils being lifted” and “opened windows” cliché warnings…
There’s no leanness whatsoever to the sound, which is what I was most worried about – instead it’s full and rich, with more bass weight than I used to have from the Theophany M5s, as in way, way more. How to explain that I have no idea.
Speed and attack was superb from the start. The overall dynamics and scale seemed a little restricted for the first few hours of use but have substantially improved over the last week or so.
James doesn’t buy into the the theory that audio gear breaks in but reports that many of his buyers indicate that the units do get better with time. The Promethius forums are laden with feedback that those TVCs need 400 hours to get to their best. After about sixty hours of use, this thing is opening up, going deeper and harder and offering an even clearer insight into the music. It’s also as musical and as involving as I could ever wish for.
I’ll go into the sound (or lack thereof) once I’ve had more time with the unit. A full review is probably in order but based on a week of use and the way it sounds right now (absolutely marvelous), this preamp isn’t going anywhere! It looks fantastic as well – a solid chunk of acrylic sandwiched between two thick aluminum sheets, this preamp weighs in at close to 10Kg, so it’s no lightweight flimsy number. I may well have found a keeper.